A resources-poor ATF struggles to monitor gun dealers
WASHINGTON – Gun rights advocates have long sought to fight off new measures that could restrict the availability of firearms by urging federal officials to make sure current laws are followed. But what if the feds are unable to? Case in point: Inspections of firearms dealers by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are meant to ensure, among other things, that they keep complete sales records so guns used in crimes are traceable, and that they don’t sell their wares to those forbidden to buy them.
However, those inspections are few and far between.
According to a 2013 Office of the Inspector General report, only about 58 percent of firearms dealers were inspected within five years.
ATF officials declined to provide a more recent comparable figure, but in 2016, ATF inspected just 7.1 percent of 137,464 active firearms dealers for compliance. At that rate, it would take the agency 14 years to inspect all firearms dealers – likely longer, as the number of dealers has been steadily increasing.
That’s not even close to ATF’s goal of inspecting each dealer every three to five years. (The goal used to be every three years, but was loosened in the last decade.)
An ATF spokesman, Special Agent Josh E. Jackson, declined to comment this month, but in the past the agency has made it clear that the issue is one of staffing, or rather a lack thereof.
“ATF has always tried to meet inspection goals but there are so many federal firearms licensees and so few investigators that the numbers just don’t work out that way,” said Michael Bouchard, president of the ATF Association, which is comprised of former and current members of ATF. “If you’re going to do the inspections right, it’s just too time-consuming.”
Of course, there’s no law requiring that gun sellers be inspected – at all. Legally, firearms dealers must submit to inspections, but ATF isn’t required to conduct them. ATF is legally barred from inspecting a dealer too often, though. Agents can’t inspect the same seller more than once a year without a warrant.
When inspections do occur, they often reveal a range of problems. Less than half of dealers inspected are found fully compliant. In fiscal year 2016, onethird of inspections found some sort of violation, the majority of which were serious; those include a dealer selling a firearm to someone they had reasonable cause to believe was prohibited, or failing to report multiple handgun sales to a single buyer.